It was a rough split second for Kenny Griffin, but it was a heck of a lot better than spending six hours driving back and forth to Anchorage.
Just after midnight Saturday morning at the Kenai Multipurpose Facility, the puck dropped on a summer solstice skate held by the Kenai River Brown Bears.
The event featured current and former Brown Bears, as well as current and former high-school players from the area.
The game showcased the fact that the Kenai Peninsula will have ice throughout the summer for the first time in its history — at least if one is not counting glaciers.
Griffin’s gold squad was trying to complete a comeback late in the game when Griffin, who will be a sophomore at Soldotna High School, carried the puck in the neutral zone.
Alec Butcher, who led West High to a state hockey title as a sophomore and is a current Brown Bears player, pounced and picked the puck from Griffin, bolting down to the other end of the ice and scoring to seal the victory for the black squad.
“You’ve got to play with your head up,” Griffin said. “It’s a much quicker pace.”
It was a lesson Griffin was happy to learn. He will skate in three different programs all summer in Kenai, and said the summer ice will help him immensely when he goes to a United States Hockey League showcase in late July.
“If we didn’t have this, I would have had to go to Anchorage to skate, and that would have been tough on my dad and tough on me because I’m also playing baseball this summer,” Griffin said. “I probably could have gone only once a week.
“This is a great opportunity to get ice time, and it also means I get to play against players like this.”
The summer ice program was put together by Vince Redford of Red Line Sports.
“It’s long overdue,” Redford said. “It lets kids that are down here keep up with the kids from Anchorage that skate year-round.”
Redford said he talked with Rick Koch, the city manager of Kenai, about how much it would cost to keep the ice in during the summer.
Once he got that info, he designed a summer program that aimed to draw participants from all ages and abilities in order to keep the costs down for everyone.
“This is not just for elite players,” Redford said. “This program is designed for everybody.”
The plan worked. There are 20 separate programs this summer — four per day five days a week. There are over 250 participants in the program, and some are doing more than one program a week.
Redford said the summer ice should break even financially, which bodes well for its future.
In addition to the programs, Redford said camps, like the MIHS of Canada camp, will help pay for the ice. He said adult hockey leagues, both men’s and women’s, also have been extremely supportive of the venture.
“I’d like summer ice to be as traditional as winter ice,” Redford said.
The only way the summer ice breaks even, though, is if the labor of people like Redford, Redford’s daughter Jenna, and Kenai Central alumni and current Brown Bears player Zack Zulkanycz is not counted.
Jenna, who plays hockey for St. Cloud State University, said some epic shifts, including a 1 a.m. to 11 p.m. marathon, were pulled to get the ice in by June 13.
Now that the painted lines are covered with ice, and now that the Zamboni can be used instead of flooding the ice, the labor should slow immensely.
But that doesn’t mean Jenna will be spending much less time at the rink. Redford will be skating in three programs, as well as serving as an instructor for many others.
“I might as well glue the skates to my feet,” she said.
Brown Bears head coach Oliver David, currently summering in his home state of California, knows this sounds crazy to some.
David has spent the last four winters on the Kenai Peninsula, so he understands the urge of Alaskans to get far away from ice or anything connoting winter in the precious days of summer.
But David also knows how the game of hockey has changed. In California, he watches daily as hockey players duck in from the perfect weather and skate year-round.
They then leave the rink and play roller hockey outside.
“This is something I fully support,” David said. “Being from the Lower 48, the ice does not come out in the summer.
“I know what I’m sounding like here, but there is no excuse not to work on the game of hockey this summer.”
Redford said the benefit to the summer ice for the Brown Bears is grooming players for the team.
“We want to give players from this area the best chance of one day wearing a Brown Bears sweater,” Redford said.
Redford said players like Zulkanycz, who most likely will be the only Brown Bears player from the Peninsula next season, benefit local youth hockey by serving as role models and benefit the Brown Bears by giving the community another reason to support the organization.
“I don’t find it crazy at all,” Zulkanycz said of spending a Peninsula summer on ice. “I love playing hockey. I want to be on the ice as much as possible.”
A complete list of the summer ice schedule is available on kenairiverbrownbears.com. Redford also said a free public skate will be held from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on weekdays starting in July.